review by Gabriel
The Remains of the Day tells the story of an old English butler’s trip to the country to visit a friend. It doesn’t sound like the most riveting concept in the history of literature, does it? Yet Kazuo Ishiguro’s tale of the closeted life of a domestic servant is dazzling for the scope of its observations on humanity and English culture.
Central to this masterfully told story is the narrator, Mr Stevens, the butler of a noble house whose best days are behind him, and who is struggling with the changes to society following the war. Ishiguro perfectly captures the voice of the class and the era. At times his portrayal lapses into caricature, but he generally rendered with sufficient tenderness to overcome this.
He is a textbook example of an unreliable narrator (a narrator whose account of events cannot be trusted). The first reason for this is that he is the picture of English repression. The second is because of his stern commitment to the service of his household. These two traits come together in his philosophising about what constitutes a “great” butler, which, though never explicitly stated, means ignoring all passion. Rather than portraying his commitment to service to be heroic, Ishiguro shows how it serves as both excuse and cause for Steven’s small mindedness and inability to relate to others. Yet Stevens somehow manages to be a lovable character due to his daftness, his loyalty and his resilience, not to mention his impeccable manners.
The scale of his repression is used to great comic effect. The driving tension of the novel is the unresolved love between Stevens and the person whom he sets out to visit, Miss Kenton. From the opening chapter, Stevens’ longing for Miss Kenton is apparent to the reader. He creates a pretence to see her, constantly rereads her letter and fusses over his clothes, all the while making assertions about how it is all out of purely professional interest. His awkward attempts to master “banter” for the sake of his new American employer are another highlight. I don’t usually laugh out load at books, but I found myself laughing a few times. Its lol worthy.
However, his repression is not only comic, but tragic, so that when he finally expresses his feelings in a straightforward manner near the end of the novel, the heartbreak is magnified by all that has gone unsaid.
Stevens is also a representative of a bygone era. The aristocratic England he belongs to is fading in the post-war era, and he struggles with the new world as he struggles with his new American master. The other major tension of the novel comes from the gradual disclosure of the fall from grace of Stevens’ former employer. The butler’s loyalty is used to explore many issues in the inter-war era – the British aristocracy’s support for the rise of Nazi Germany, the German people’s complicity in the Holocaust, feudalism, fascism. Through Stevens, these historic catastrophes are shown to be the products of both the good and bad in the human character.
It isn’t an overly long book, and that’s probably for the best. The character of Mr Stevens is stretched about as far as he can go by the end of the novel, and a few concepts, such as what constitutes a great butler, are needlessly rehashed. Nonetheless, The Remains of the Day weaves social allegory and human insight to create a masterpiece of a book by an author of remarkable intellectual clarity and skill.